The Medieval Garden 2014

The Medieval Garden 2014


By Lin Saines, Medieval Garden Advisor


What a difference a year makes! This time last year the Women’s Tower within the Rye Castle Medieval Garden was a building site, as was the Garden itself. Overgrown, unable to be worked on and full of builders’ “stuff”. It was not a place of beauty.  But just look at it now! A tidy, well managed garden,   all the beds and borders newly defined with smart timber edging, new wooden benches encouraging visitors to linger, and our largest plants safely contained within attractive wooden tubs. It looks superb, as the following photos will show you.

IMG_0083We are looking towards the newly-opened Women’s Tower now containing a fascinating exhibition on the ground floor, this photo taken from the Garden entrance.  In the foreground stands the just-sprouting Vine Arbour, which will be covered during the summer months with an old white grapevine, fragrant honeysuckle and red and white climbing roses. The colourful “Spring Bed” is smothered with primroses and the “Periwinkle Bed” just as colourful in mauve flowering is immediately behind it, with the water cauldron and newly replanted Bay tree flanking the entrance to the Tower.

Garden IMG_0054This photo shows the left-hand border at the bottom of the stairs. Motherwort is just coming into growth in the foreground, with the yellow Iris and pale mauve-flowering Iris “Florentina” enclosed within the small hurdles. Iris Florentina root has been discussed in earlier Website articles, important in the Medieval period for making ink, preserving linens from the attention of moths (where the fragrant root would be wrapped within cloths being stored) and is today included in powdered form when making a pot-pourri mixture.  It “fixes” and strengthens the scent of plants being dried.


Garden IMG_0033

Primroses were not only a welcome sight after the rigours of winter, but were also well used. The attractive, bright yellow flowers of the “primus rose” or the “first rose” of spring decorated salads and cakes, in particular the Easter “Simnel Cake”.  Leaves and flowers made a blood-cleansing primrose tea and a bunch of the roots, steeped in boiling water, strained through muslin cloth and with a spoonful of honey added at the point of serving, is still used by herbalists as a cough and cold relief.



Garden IMG_0061Garden IMG_0050Looking back towards Ypres Tower from the Chamomile seat, we see the “Periwinkle Bed” in the foreground, and the “Culinary Bed” which is situated just outside the Women’s Tower. Periwinkle (“Vinca major”) was a wound herb, also in the Elizabethan period it was worn to ward off evil spirits, and was therefore considered to be a magical plant. It is still used to stop both internal and external bleeding, and in blood pressure treatment. So once again, a tiny and rather insignificant-looking plant is actually an important herbal medicine.


Garden IMG_0064The “Culinary Bed” is full of old kitchen favourites including sorrel, lemon balm, chives, mint and oregano. Against the Tower Wall is an old Rosemary, growing upright, quite correctly as in the Medieval period they were grown tall to enable ladies to brush their sleeves and hands against the fragrant leaves. We are lucky the plant has survived the building work as it was really on the “front line” and could easily have been lost. Here, the attractive, feathery-leaved Fennel is also coming to life again, so important a flavouring at a time when fish was eaten regularly for religious festivals and always on Fridays.


Garden IMG_0090The Bay Tree beside the Women’s Tower entrance is a “standard” Bay, an old tree that has taken years to grow this high, its leaves maintained in a simple ball shape as seen on so many medieval tapestries and paintings. Other, simpler-grown Bay bushes would provide leaves for flavouring stews, soups and in earlier days a simple “pottage,” where mainly vegetables and herbs would be stewed for peasant’s food, with hopefully a little meat or probably fish contained within it.


Garden IMG_0115

This is my Spring display in the Still Room. Last summer’s rosehips (seen at top right) would have been crushed in a mortar and pestle and made into rosehip syrup with the addition of sweetening such as honey. It is interesting to note that the Vitamin C content of roses was not known until World War II. Rose hips were made into small pills taken against the Great Plague, and centuries later gentle rose water was carried to our soldiers at “The Front”, wherever they were fighting, to bathe the eyes of soldiers suffering from the effects of Gas and smoke. We show Rosehip Syrup (far right), a spiced Tisane and another of mint, rosemary and thyme (both to be served hot), and a springtime herbal tonic drink including primrose at far left.


Garden IMG_0123On the work table we have the Tisane cup, ladle and spoon together with a heavy mortar and pestle used for crushing spices and herbs freshly collected from the Garden. This was an important piece of Still Room equipment and would be used on a daily basis. Here also are the small copper and brazier for heating mixtures before straining them through muslin cloth into bottles, as shown on the shelf above. Some of the then-precious spices are also here, some wrapped in muslin bags for steeping in mixtures which could then be dried and re-used. Finally, Lavender soap and a Rosemary “basting brush” can be seen.  The basting brush could also be made of Thyme, and gave an aromatic flavour to foods cooked over an open fire, using the melted oils and fats from the roast to keep food moist.


Garden IMG_0120Garden IMG_0121


Herbs on the hanging rack include Bay, Lavender and Nigella dried flower heads.  Gardeners would know this blue-flowering plant as “Love- in- the- Mist”, the Latin name of “Nigella Damascena” showing its middle-Eastern origins from around the Damascus area.

The tiny seeds have long been used sprinkled over breads, and their spicy flavour used in cooking. Nigella seeds are included today in the bewildering spice mixture of Moroccan “Ras-al-Hanut” which also includes rose petals and many aromatic spices.



Garden IMG_0031

Finally, for those perusing the Website who perhaps have not visited Rye and not seen the Ypres Tower and its attractive situation, I thought this overview taken from the top of the Tower would be interesting. Here you see the Medieval Garden set deep within the Castle Courtyard, as I have called it before “The Garden beyond the Tower”;  looking towards the later, Victorian Women’s Tower boasting its superb new exhibition, and to beyond the Castle walls where the River Rother winds its way down to the sea.

Perhaps you will have a chance to visit during 2014, there is a lot to see here, and also an ever-changing Garden to enjoy.

RYE GARDEN BOOKLETLook out for my Summer article when we will be discussing more of the plants to be seen within the Medieval Garden, and of their many uses in the Still Room.


First posted in Featured, Medieval Garden on 23rd March 2014
Last updated: 24th March 2014